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For those who have read a good deal of Saul Bellow’s work and have read a little bit about his life, it isn’t always that hard to see where fact and fiction blend; his friend and sometimes rival, Isaac Rosenfeld, was the inspiration for King Dhafu in “Henderson the Rain King,” and the dead genius poet Von Humboldt Fleisher was a stand-in for the poet Delmore Schwartz in “Humboldt’s Gift.” Greg Bellow also recalls a scene in Roth’s “Everyman” that seemed familiar to him: “a funeral scene reminiscent of Saul’s during which a fictional character speaks, almost verbatim, my final graveside words to my father as I tossed a ceremonial handful of dirt onto Saul’s coffin.” This scene is one of the many throughout Bellow’s memoir that make it clear that being the son of a famous writer was never easy.
According to Greg Bellow, his father ruined his own first marriage with his “epic philandering.”
“It did not take long for Saul to develop a taste for sex outside of marriage,” Greg Bellow writes, pointing out that initially his father “adopted a belief that fidelity was a bourgeois ideology,” something the young Saul Bellow, as a Trotskyite, was totally against.
But it isn’t the young Saul Bellow that cheated on his wife with whom Greg Bellow takes the most issue; instead, it was the man his father ultimately became, the “Old Saul,” that Greg Bellow has the most trouble coming to terms with. Both politically and personally, “the man he was between his teens and his late forties filled my father with regret and shame that he felt a need to alter.”
In the end, what you come away with after reading “Saul Bellow’s Heart” is more than just all the things you always wanted to know about the great writer but maybe were afraid to ask until now. This portrait of Bellow winds up being one of a vain, bitter and at times cruel man. And, for better and worse, there’s no stronger account of the life and times of the great writer than this one that was written by his own flesh and blood.
Jason Diamond is the founder of Vol. 1 Brooklyn and the managing editor of Flavorpill.